Why Too Many Flashbacks Might Be a Warning of Deeper Story Problems

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

This week we have been discussing flashbacks. What are they? Why do readers, agents, editors generally want to stab them in the face? Is it truly a flashback or is the writer employing an unorthodox plotting structure (The Green Mile or The English Patient)? Shifting time IS a legitimate literary device, but like ALL literary devices, it has strengths and weaknesses.

Theme is wonderful. But if we lay it on too thick, we can turn off readers because our story comes across as preachy or lecturing. Symbolism? Love it! But overdo this and readers can get irritated. Can the drapes JUST BE BLUE? Deus ex machina IS a legitimate literary device. Feel free to use it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but knock yourself out.

As I like to say, Have fun storming the castle! *waves and grins*

Deus ex machina hasn’t been used much since, oh, Odysseus, but hey. It might work. *cough Neverending Story* Anything can work. Don’t let me stop you.

All righty. Today, I’d like to talk about WHY flashbacks can be red flags for me as a teacher/editor. I feel I can speak to this because when I started writing I was CLUELESS. My first novel is being used in GITMO because it is more effective than water boarding.

So, why might too many flashbacks make people like me twitchy?

Our WIP can feel a little like THIS...

Our WIP can feel a little like THIS…

We Don’t Have a Core Story Problem 

Most new writers cannot tell you what their book is about in ONE sentence, yet that is all we should need. Three, MAX, but one is better. I don’t care how complicated or long the work, it should have a simple core.

Lord of the Rings

A naive, sheltered race must leave home for the first time and toss an evil ring in a volcano before darkness destroys their world and all they love.

Simple. Ah, but simple is not always easy. And while Lord of the Rings is EPIC in length, with mind-bending description and layers and symbols and sub-plots and invented languages…the core is simple. Destroy The Ring of Power before Sauron casts the world in darkness and destroys everyone.

Many new writers don’t know how to plot or believe plotting means writing will be formulaic (which us UNTRUE). Or they have no idea how to whittle all the shiny fabulous ideas in their heads and pick ONE. Thus, flashbacks become a way that we explore different stories and ideas, but since there is no skeleton, we have a gelatinous mess only we love or understand.

Whether a pantser (write by the seat of your pants) or a plotter or a mixture of both (me) we need to know what our story is ABOUT. 

This is often why, when I challenge writers to write the ending first?

*BOOM! Brain matter all over the walls*

But, if we KNOW our story problem, the ending should be there (or at least AN ending). In the LOTR, we know if they don’t toss the ring in the volcano, they lose. We know the story ends somewhere near….wait for it….a volcano.

Same in literary fiction. In The Joy Luck Club if June Mei isn’t on that boat to China in the end, she has failed to break the cycles of the past. In The Road if Man and Boy resort to snacking on people to reach the ocean, they fail. There is still a goal and there has to be a goal in order to generate true dramatic tension.

Thus, flashbacks are often a way of us trying to figure out what the story is really about. While this is a good exercise, it is a loooong and arduous way to write books.

Back to the future, then past then future...

Back to the future, then past then future…

We Don’t Yet Know Our Characters

Often flashbacks (particularly for the new pre-published writer) are a way we use to get to know who we are writing about. Maybe we aren’t comfortable with a character background sheet. It feels too… “Fill in the Blank.” I was that way and still am. This is why, when I do a character background, I write their life stories first. Then I can pick what is salient and have a developed character who is three-dimensional.

We Have Chosen the WRONG Protagonist

Writers are weird ducks, but y’all know that *quack quack*. We have to be ruthless almost to the point of sociopathy, but on the flip side, we must be intimate and vulnerable in a way mere mortals can’t be. In the beginning, being vulnerable is hard. It might always be hard. But for those of you who’ve had a work that had a ton of flashbacks, I’d like to ask this.

Did you begin your work thinking the story was about one character, only to find out you were telling the wrong story? That you’d unwittingly cast the wrong person?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

When we are new, we are insecure. Mainly because our family might be more supportive if we’d chosen to join a cult. Our protagonist is often US or at least a reflection, and, since we feel insecure, we often end up with a perfect protagonist, which is code for “dull as dirt.” Why? We can’t be vulnerable. 

Ah, but supporting characters are different. We don’t have the same armor on with those guys…which is often why people love them more and they often stage a story coup and take over.

We Have Chosen the Wrong Beginning

Sometimes flashbacks occur because our subconscious senses we aren’t starting in the correct place. We have gone too far into the action and our subconscious is dragging us back.

The flip side of this is everything is cause and effect. We sometimes just have to pick a point and start THERE. My first book in the trilogy I’m working on is a good example (and an easy one for the moment).

Romi is broke and without a job because her ex-fiance pulled an ENRON, stole a half a billion dollars, cleaned out all her accounts, and left her the FBI’s prime suspect…even though she IS an innocent victim.

I had to make a choice. Begin the book when she is down and out and blackballed OR start the story when she gets out of college and lands a dream job and dream fiancé (who will both turn into nightmares). Either would have worked. I picked starting after the $#%^ hit the fan.

Just because a set of events made a character a certain way doesn’t mean this information is salient to the plot problem. We all have a background and are all a collection of our experiences. And we could look for causation ad infinitum and go back thousands of years to figure out why. But that makes a LONG book and is therapy not fiction.

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

Emotional Distancing

As I’ve shown in examples over this week, flashbacks can be a symptom that we are doing something right. We ramped up the tension to the point of shredding nerves (GOOD), but then, to ease our own anxiety, we flashed back to explain. Remember great fiction is totally counterintuitive to what normal humans do. Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

We might be avoiding a storyline or casting a certain character because it hits too close to home.

I did this with my first novel The Past Never Dies (does the title tell you anything?)

In this book I was “attempting” to run two parallel timelines. Vivi was the outgoing world traveler and her friend, Eileen, she left behind was trapped by paralyzing OCD. The friend was living vicariously through gifts and letters and journals (I KNOW. I told y’all I’ve done all this, too).

But what was really fascinating to me was people didn’t care for Vivi (a character I projected as me at the time). She was too perfect and thus a caricature. Eileen, on the other hand, had the far more interesting story.

In the beginning, Eileen is trapped by OCD and a survivor of religious abuse. She grew up with an OLD SCHOOL Pentacostal preacher for a father who hated women, and a mother who’s too browbeaten to fight back. To compound this trauma, she was tormented in school because her father insisted she wear homemade long dresses, no makeup or jewelry and never cut her hair (in the sweltering heat of Florida).

In fact, this is how Vivi and her became friends. Vivi took on the bullies.

I tell that all in many, many….*sigh* many flashbacks.

Eileen has a routine and is borderline Aspergers. Her routine must be as precise as a Swiss watch or she short-circuits. She breaks free of Dad and explores her passion for art. Just as she is opening up, she’s the victim of a cruel and public prank at her workplace.

For the first time, she bolts. Instead of turning inward, she finally blows outward. She burns her paintings and literally walks away from her life in a very Thelma & Louise way. She rebels.

This parallel story (and the one I believed to be lesser of the two stories) arcs from Eileen being repressed, bullied and enslaved to facing those demons and finally experiencing liberation and actualization.

Vivi? A travel brochure and manufactured drama. Every poor family member who read my TOME loved Eileen’s story and was bored to tears by Vivi’s.


I wanted to be Vivi. I was Eileen. I could be vulnerable with Eileen because, in my mind, I was Vivi not Eileen.

At the time I wrote the book, I was a slave to OCD and had crippling panic attacks and social anxiety. I would shop at three in the morning so I didn’t run into people. I was terrified of the outside world and others…and that is why Eileen was far more authentic and REAL. She was deeply and profoundly flawed yet overcame it.

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 8.16.28 AM

I have seen this same phenomena time and time and time again with writers I’ve worked with. They will believe wholeheartedly their story is about Such-and-Such, but it is really about a character they “thought” was in the supporting cast.

Summing Up

Can you use flashbacks? Yes. But if we are using too many, ask the hard questions:

1. Do I have a CORE story problem I can articulate in three sentences or less?

2. Do I truly know my characters?

3. Have I chosen the wrong protagonist?

4. Am I starting in the correct spot?

5. Am I failing to choose a certain spot because I fear commitment or failure so I keep digging back in time to avoid moving forward? The past is set, the future not. Ground is given, sky is scary.

6. Am I using the flashback to emotionally distance from a story, an event or even a character?

7. If I am afraid of this thread or this character, is that perhaps the better direction to go?

In the BBT Gold class is we talk, a lot. I am more of a Book Therapist than Doctor. Often writers know the story they yearn to tell. What I do is listen to all the ideas and characters and dramas and say, “I hear all of this, but what I am hearing is your story is really about X.” I don’t have a magic ball, just good listening skills that can peel away a bunch of stuff I’m not attached to (but the writer is).

This class is designed to save a LOT of time, money and fruitless revisions. Everyone walks away with their story on a sentence, a basic plot and a very clear idea of what their novel truly is about.

Six hours or less can save you six years or more 😀 .

Like couples therapy. You and your WIP. You think it’s about the toothpaste lid being left off alien invasion and her childhood when it isn’t. An outside professional can help you go deeper to what’s at the heart of the matter/story, whether that is me, a good editor, a great critique partner or group.

I hope at the end of these posts you can see why I am not really being mean when I challenge you to lose flashbacks. My goal is for you guys to tell the story you were born to tell, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

What are your thoughts?

For those who’ve relied on too many flashbacks, does this help? Maybe you’ve picked the wrong point in time or are scared of your true story? Have you cast the wrong character before? Maybe handed your work to others and they ask, “Why aren’t you writing about HER?” Are you going backward because you fear going forward, or maybe don’t know how to?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have a FANTASTIC class coming up to help you!


Understanding the Antagonist

If you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension.

Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.

Additionally, why pay thousands for an editor or hundreds for a book doctor? This is a VERY affordable way to make sure your entire story is clear and interesting. Also, it will help you learn to plot far faster and cleaner in the future.

Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

I’ll be running the First Five Pages again at the end of May, so stay tuned.

And, if you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.



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    • Martha Carr on April 30, 2014 at 8:48 am
    • Reply

    Another thing I’d want to know is if the writer had an outline with some meat in it. Starting with an outline points out the holes pretty quickly. They’re also useful if you’re leading a life and get interrupted for a week and then have to pull yourself back into the story. Knowing the ending is crucial. Where are you driving that car to if you haven’t picked a destination?

    1. Yes, but some people suck at outlines (me included). I have to work backwards. When early writing teachers wanted me to plot forward from a beginning? *smell of smoke* When I learned to begin with the core antagonist and work backward, plotting was FAR easier.

        • Stephanie Scott on April 30, 2014 at 12:46 pm
        • Reply

        I like this idea. Every time I try a more straightforward outline approach I just can’t sit still and my skin crawls. I can brainstorm characters and settings and scribble in a notebook, but planning out a beat sheet in advance I hate more than anything.

  1. Although I’m not a slave to the flashback, the bits about really knowing which character I am writing about and what story I am trying to tell really hit home. It has opened my eyes a bit, so thank you. Time to be very honest with myself and look at things from a different perspective! Thanks again.

  2. Reblogged this on Author Unpublished and commented:
    An intriguing and well-explained post on Flashbacks.

  3. Reblogged this on Chad B. Hanson.

  4. When I was starting my memoir, a writing coach described my intention of using flashbacks as ’emotional beats’. That was a perfect fit – flashbacks that contrast and comment on the present story in a way that deepens the reader’s understanding of the core character. I recall a famous screenwriting coach who hated the use of voice over and thought it was amateurish – but out comes How I Met Your Mother or Desperate Housewives. I get that when used as a ‘cover up’ for deeper flaws these elements can be a crutch – but they can also be good tools 🙂

    1. A lot is in execution. Is the voiceover part of the story? In “Desperate Housewives” the voiceover is from a murdered neighbor. She tells us that, while the houses and people look perfect, this is far from the truth. In fact, the first seasons involved uncovering how and why she was killed. In this case, she is part of the story, not a crutch to make writing easier. If we apply these questions to our work and they don’t apply. If we use time-shifts and people are not confused, then we did the time shifts well.

    • Kathleen Azevedo on April 30, 2014 at 10:25 am
    • Reply

    As a beginning novelist, I find that there are so many choices to make in telling this story. I have learned that with a lengthy time of brainstorming, my vision and my story improves exponentially, compared to what I began with.
    Lack of confidence is my biggest problem.
    Your blogs and articles show me how to analyze my choices and how to organize them.
    This article was especially helpful.
    I am trying to decide what belongs at the beginning of the story; and now I see that if I make the right choices, I can avoid flashbacks entirely.
    When I first began organizing the plot, I had thought that I would need to include several flashbacks.

    With your help, I am already a better writer.
    Thank you.

  5. Reblogged this on Rescuing Little L and commented:
    I just enjoyed the heck out of this post.

    It’s part stand-up comedy, enough vulnerability to make Brene Brown proud and teeming with great points about flashbacks.

    Survivors live in the world of flashbacks. We experience them often in our day-to-day, hour-to-hour lives until our heads hit the pillow and then they often dominate our unconscious dream time.

    What appeals to me here is that it gives us an element of control to our otherwise uncontrollable lives. Many of us owe our past a debt of gratitude for making us a fierce, strong warriors of the present. We’ve endured some major shit and can often yawn in the face of adversity as adults. But this gives us the tools to pull the meat of those experiences off the bone and finally end that pointless blabbering of our flashbacks.

    Kudos to Kristen Lamb for this gem.

    • Tracey on April 30, 2014 at 11:13 am
    • Reply

    Are dreams on the same page with flashbacks? I was told flashbacks are bad and show weak writing.

  6. I’ve been working on my novel for eight years now, so a lot of what you described sounds like me a few years ago. I’ve found the more you write, the more these problems fade away. Starting out young like I did (at 15) is not as great as it sounds. It does get better, to people who are worried. It gets a lot better. Being new isn’t bad. It’s just new. 🙂

    I think one of the ones I still may be guilty of is number 6. I have to go through and see if I’ve accidentally emotionally distanced myself from things. Thanks for the great blog post yet again.

  7. I enjoy reading flashbacks. I know, that’s going to irritate you after all these posts, but I do. You’ve already mentioned a few *amazing* novels/movies: Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Joy Luck Club, Fried Green Tomatoes. Incredible. But those aren’t flashbacks, just a different timeline. Right?

    But I’m reading a book right now where the main character jumped to a story about her mother (who is dead) and something that they did together. Then it was right back to the present-day story. That seems like a flashback but it didn’t confuse me or make me feel like I had whiplash.


    1. Those stories mentioned are parallel timelines. The character jumping to a story about Mom, if it didn’t confuse you was just merging the past events in present narrative.

  8. Great advice I should have heard sooner. But there is no substitute for experience, I suppose.

  9. Loved this post 🙂 In fact I love all your posts. I have just completely erased my first chapter- I was starting in the wrong place

  10. Take the antagonist class. Yes, I had the wrong protagonist. No, my story wouldn’t have worked as it was. Yes, Kristen made me shoot it in the head (and I mourned for a week and pouted for two months).
    Now I’m on the follow-up rewrite using beta reader comments. This is the new story Kristen and I talked out together. I won’t say it’s brilliant, but it seems to work now. All of this in 8 months.

    1. Thanks, Sharon! We all mourn. I look at my first book and so many fond memories playing with my imaginary friends. Tough to part ways.

  11. Reblogged this on An Author in the Works and commented:
    Questions I must ask myself…nah, I will ask my prereaders. 😉

  12. Reblogged this on chrishowardsgrouploup.

  13. Your mention or some one’s reposting of what you said about flashbacks yesterday got me thinking about the book I’m currently editing. I wrote it some time ago and I’ve learned a lot since then. But I realized I’ve used flashbacks and I need to do something about that. I’m currently reading the Forgotten Garden and the author of it uses timeline dates from 1913, to 1975 to 2005 and jumps around with them. This doesn’t bother me as a reader so I’m trying to decide if I need to take a similar path. I think I can sum my story up in one sentence and have the right protagonist. I’m not sure I have an antagonist unless it death. So thank you for calling this to my attention. Also thank you for writing Rise of the Machines. I am finding it invaluable in building a platform and have recommended it to my writer friends. I even quoted it yesterday in my group as we discussed that subject and tried to show one of our members why he should do it. He is stuck in the past. He like me is a Winter Writer but I see the value of being a social being on social networks. I have published two books. They aren’t fiction but are based on my mother’s life and are written in style like fiction.

    1. Wonderful to hear! And go Winter Writers. You guys are the hardest workers I’ve found, bar none. Some of the most tech-savvy and innovative authors I know are close to 70… these days I think that’s still Autumn :D. I learned about QR codes 4 years ago from a Winter Writer.

  14. Reblogged this on Lane Heymont and commented:
    An interesting discussion on flashbacks.

  15. Reblogged this on justiceforkevinandjenveybaylis.

  16. Finding the right place to begin the story can be tricky. I’ve written (and discarded) I don’t know how many beginnings to my WIP – I’m not even sure about the current one, I just thought I’d better write the whole novel instead of 17 beginnings 🙂

  17. Thanks for these great posts, Kristen. I’ve had a few novels published yet with every new venture I learn more and more. When I think of characters who leap from the page I can’t help but think of Han Solo in Star Wars and how the story was about Luke, but in the end we cared more about Han and Leia than we did about Luke. Points taken and applied to current projects. I’ve been wrestling with whether I need to explain more about my characters, but their actions should speak for themselves. Thanks heaps. Your posts are brilliant.

  18. “We might be avoiding a storyline or casting a certain character because it hits too close to home.” This was a difficult lesson for me, but I did eventually learn to follow the LEAST comfortable storyline.

  19. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts this week. It’s opened my eyes to the world of writing. Thank you.

    • Dave on May 1, 2014 at 7:14 am
    • Reply

    Oh god Kristen, you’ve given me a pain in the side. In order for the story to unfold, I have to weave two character’s flashbacks into their current story. Each having, shall we say, interesting histories and connections from decades ago laid out against the background of a psychological thriller makes it necessary. But, how does one go about keeping to the truth of your points while still filling in the background?

    1. I might recommend finding a book similar to yours and see how they did it. For instance, if I were ever so bold as to use multiple timelines, I’d pick up “The Green Mile” or “Murder as a Fine Art.”

        • Dave on May 1, 2014 at 7:53 am
        • Reply

        Thanks for the suggestions. Using my years as a clinical social worker, having direct experience in the office, out on the streets, in the ERs and in people’s homes means that I grasp the clinical need to follow an assortment of timelines. That, though, has nothing to do with putting such a fabrication on paper. Again, thanks for your adept encouragement!

    • Colleen Brynn on May 1, 2014 at 8:01 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for this insight… reading the title of this blog post made my stomach flip given the *ahem* nature of my current work, but you have some excellent questions to ask, and actually I don’t think I’ve gone too far in the style I’m writing.

    • sao on May 1, 2014 at 10:11 am
    • Reply

    Your comment about writing about the wrong protag hit home for me. I did that in my first book. I cast me. But the story problem was borrowed from another (lying) character, so my heroine was acting on her behalf. I really needed a totally different char to make it believable.

  20. For me, I think being about to answer questions 2 and 3 correctly (2. yes and 3. no) is going to help my story out a lot. I’ve been writing notes about my main character but maybe actually writing her little story would help me more. And is she really the main character? It could be the person she’s taking care of who is the main one. Things I need to working, that’s for sure. I had been going over these 2 questions before reading your post. Now I’m more clear on how to help myself. Thanks 🙂

  21. Now that you mention it, I DiD use flashbacks a lot when my writing was first maturing. And I use them sparsely if at all at this point…when I catch myself doing so, it does appear to be getting to know my character better more often than not, since I also tend to hate character sheets.

    I didn’t ever think I’d cast the wrong character, but I’m starting to think that maybe I had the wrong idea with the book I’m working on now. The first three drafts, I had it in third person focusing on Character A. Come draft four, I tried writing it from first person perspective of Character B, intending to have A still be the main character…but in writing the fifth draft, I think maybe B IS the main character after all. Because A has been around for a long time and has become quite refined and therefore has little in flaws. His biggest problem is just dealing with racism against himself, which he does with dignity. But B is a young man who starts out the story in prison because he’s a thief. He has a lot of problems, and slowly develops into a more trusting an honest person by the end of the story. Also his scathing sarcasm is just more fun to write.
    Reading this post, it makes sense how A can be the main character in book two, since something comes up that presents a huge problem for him and he starts having trouble making the right choice: he becomes -very- interesting indeed.

    Side note: for a long time I’ve flaunted any sort of real writing process, of determining my core or outlining or worrying about character growth or anything like that. But the more I start paying attention to it – and your blog has been helpful drawing my attention to things I’ve ignored, thank you! – the more I start to realize my writing is better when I’ve inadvertently followed any backbone advice…and the more I start paying attention to these things to start. Thank you, again 🙂

  22. I’m not a big fan of flashbacks. In my opinion too many of them are confusing to reader and sometimes writer too. I read a book where I got so irritated by the flashbacks that I had to finally close the book and say: “I wonder why that writer didn’t make two books – one with the past story of the protagonist – and one with the present happenings…

  23. If you start your story “in medias res” doesn’t that presuppose at some point writing flashbacks? Personally, I like starting that way … but hate flashbacks. But to me – and, yeah, I’ve seen it happen – the cardinal sin is a flashback within a flashback.
    And I realize I may be the only one who feels this way, but since you referenced “Thelma & Louise” … I’ve always felt it’s the perfect example of a story that the writer had no idea how to end. Yes, there’s a beginning and a middle and – oh, what the hell, I’ll just toss ’em off a cliff. The end. Almost as bad as when the ending turns out to be the person waking up and it’s all a dream.

  24. I think people are scared of your “make the conflict BIGGER” rehtorics for a very simple reason:
    They might think it feels false. We don’t all experience these big issues of facing abuse or throwing rings at volcanoes. Writers think THEME they think CHARACTER they think MESSAGE. They think depth and such and such and such and think that a core conflict will ruin this.
    It won’t.
    Two nights ago after our session I couldn’t sleep for ideas! All because we’d gotten so close to the core story conflict. Suddenly the rest just came out on its own.

    1. YES WE DID! I was so proud. Finally SAW your STORY!

      1. Felt like an epiphany x)

  25. You are the true writer’s whisperer, always explaining what others fear to see. Thank you. This is all starting to jell. 🙂

    1. Writer Whisperer. I dig that :D. Yeah, the whole “Not Having Any Pride” thing is super helpful for you guys. I am bold enough to admit the stuff most people try to hide. I figure it makes me colorful. Yes…colorful.

      1. Colorful is good. 🙂 I also know you must suffer some frustration (yes, the density of my brain is often equal to the atmosphere surrounding Venus). Results, though, don’t lie. What you talk about works. It’s amazing how many writers persist in blogging about writing rather then giving their true audience the opportunity to find them. You opened my eyes. My thanks.

  26. Great article -thanks

  27. Reblogged this on Thekellygeorge's Blog and commented:
    Author Kristen makes some great points – worth a look!

  28. After reading your last post about flashback usage, I went over my manuscript and weeded out the unnecessary reflection in the first chapter and just got on with the story. What a difference! Now my book has the main character having one dream (which could qualify as a flashback) and one character talking a bit about his back story.
    We are writing for a different kind of audience these days. Our writing needs to address this new kind of reader. Any redundancy is a turn off for the distracted modern reader. I think readers might even be savvy enough to know when flashbacks are being used to make the story seem longer or more complex but actually is only filler. Anyone who watches Anime knows this trick all too well. A lot of people get upset with redundant flashbacks, and I’ve even read blog posts complaining about them.
    I love it when you write posts like this. They make writers think more deeply about what they are doing, or at least that is how I react.

  29. I had to give up my flashbacks very recently. It wasn’t until I did so that I recognized how much that freed up the “present tense” of the story to develop. Although I loved those flashbacks and still do, and I cross my fingers that I can use them as online exclusives or something when, yanno, I actually get published.

  30. Very informative, since I am about to write a book that includes many flashbacks. At least they are all about the same two people.

  31. Thank you, I’ve always hated flashbacks in books and especially in movies. Your blog explains why.
    They either take me out of the story or confuse me.
    I also used to skip prologues before I became a writer. Now I read them, then try to figure out how I would write the beginning to get to the story without it.

  32. “Just because a set of events made a character a certain way doesn’t mean this information is salient to the plot problem.”

    As a past Queen of flashbacks and over-involved character background, I can only say “Yes, yes, and heck yes!” to this. I still write all the rubbish in my first drafts, but come editing time I’ve learnt to be ruthless with the hacking, and it certainly makes for a much better story. Three chapters have just been condensed to one, and that’s just the start!

    The point about being able to sum your story up in one sentence is also very interesting, as I find it very hard, when people ask me what my book is about, to be able to tell them succinctly. Off for a practice now.

    Great article, thank you!

    • Unabashed Delusion on February 2, 2023 at 5:33 pm
    • Reply

    you know, I found this post because I was struggling with a plot and my husband suggested I try writing the story non-linearly and I decided to research how to do this well – it seems the internet is largely in agreement that it should not be done.

    however, this “We might be avoiding a storyline or casting a certain character because it hits too close to home.” oh NO. In this particular case that’s not true, but I definitely have been there before. I had a side character that the MC was a jerk too, but when it came time to have him make amends I couldn’t do it. Every single time I sat down to write that scene I cried and cried. The thought of acknowledging that the MC was in the wrong and not her made me feel sick. I HATED this character, absolutely LOATHED her more than any other character in the manuscript, even though she hadn’t objectively speaking done anything worse than any other character and wasn’t even in the wrong in her conflict with the MC. I spent THREE WEEKS crying every time I tried to write lmao and then I realized the reason I didn’t want the MC to be nice to her was because she reminded me of myself. So I wrote that character out of the story entirely.

    Why am I saying all this in your comment section? It is possible the idea that I should have made her a more prominent character instead of cutting her brought me back to that visceral reaction of “no, no, this character can only exist if everyone else hates her as much as I do” so I had to react to say “noooo I hope that it isn’t a universal truth that a character hitting too close to home means they should be your MC instead.”

    1. That is an excellent question. Without knowing more details I can’t say for certain but feel free to email me at kristen at wana intl dot com.

    2. Todays blog on how to craft heroes might also help you.

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